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September 28, 2007

Tears In Mediation

It is only a question of time before someone cries during one of your mediations. For a new mediator this can be unsettling. What does it mean and what intervention options are available and indeed advisable?

Someone once said to me that tears on the outside are a sign of healing on the inside. If we remember that when people are stuck in conflict, it’s almost like they are frozen, then tears can also be a sign that they are starting to thaw, and change. Both these frames to look at tears suggest potential, and that as a general rule, tears are a good-not bad-thing.

In my experience, being comfortable with crying (like the exhibition of any strong emotional states) and being able to fully validate what it is that the person who is crying is feeling, can go a long way to facilitating a lasting resolution of the conflict.

Ken Cloke (an insightful thought leader in the field of conflict resolution) has articulated how there are different levels at which we can resolve a conflict. It starts at a physical level when the parties stop fighting. The image that always comes to mind is of two children being pulled apart.

We can settle the issues-as we typically see happening in a court arena. At a cognitive level, there is agreement on what needs to be done. Another good example is the way the dispute between Israel and Lebanon was resolved in 2006. They stopped fighting, and resolved the border dispute. I think we are all know that the conflict is still simmering.

Getting to a lasting resolution requires that we traverse the emotional waters and deal with our pain and discomfort. This is not easy. For the most part our emotional templates were developed when we were young and unless we have worked on increasing our emotional literacy, we and the disputants we encounter in mediations will be unaware of their templates.

If people are to move beyond their anger, grief or fear they must feel it. Suppressing or sedating emotional pain or discomfort doesn’t work over a long period of time. Tears are typically a sign that the emotional pain and discomfort are being addressed –that a thawing or healing is taking place.

The cynics amongst you will correctly point out that tears can also be used to manipulate and deflect responsibility. Even if that is true at times, my view, as a mediator, is that something significantly upsetting is still occurring, and that the tears remain a sign of desperation that should be validated with respect.

Beyond validation-letting the person know that their emotional response is valid from their perspective-we should consider whether to meet with the person who is crying in private. However, beware of sending a message that tears are not a good thing, by ushering the person away.

Given that crying can constitute a loss of face for some, and that they would prefer the opportunity to cry in private, it is wise to check in and get a sense of what is needed. When someone’s tears follow what appears to be an ambush, or where they feel out of control, meeting in private may be a good idea.

Obviously, having handkerchiefs is a good idea, but offering them should not necessarily be the first response. Better to anticipate and have them available. Offering them can imply that the response is inappropriate and worse, take the person away from what they are feeling.

Beyond the more intuitive reasons to value tears, it is interesting to know that from a physiological point of view tears are a way that the body releases stress related hormones like cortisol.

So the next time you notice someone start to tear up during your mediation, see is as an opportunity to address the emotional energy. Be sensitive, and work to validate the emotions associated with the tears. It could be the very thing that helps the parties reach a lasting resolution.


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Having conducted a number of employment discrimination mediations, I've encountered more than my share of tears. Have a box of tissues handy and offer then at the first sign of breaking, but do not offer sympathy and keep pressing on point. This may sound insensitive, but my experience has it that the affected parties appreciate the firm but gentle hand in getting their point accross. One of the good things about mediators is their postional and functional neutrality. This also tides over into the mediator's emotional detachment.

My intention is to add at least one new entry a month that will address the categories that I have created.

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